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In the Sap
IN the excitement of a distribution of letters from which the squad were returning--some with the delight of a letter, some with the semi-delight of a postcard, and others with a new load (speedily reassumed) of expectation and hope--a comrade comes with a brandished newspaper to tell us an amazing story--"Tu sais, the weasel-faced ancient at Gauchin?"
"The old boy who was treasure-seeking?"
"Well, he's found it!"
"It's just as I tell you, you great lump! What would you like me to say to you? Mass? Don't know it. Anyway, the yard of his place has been bombed, and a chest full of money was turned up out of the ground near a wall. He got his treasure full on the back. And now the parson's quietly cut in and talks about claiming credit for the miracle"
We listen open-mouthed. "A treasure--well! well! The old bald-head!"
The sudden revelation plunges us in an abyss of reflection. "And to think how damned sick we were of the old cackler when he made such a song about his treasure and dinned it into our ears!"
"We were right enough down there, you remember, when we were saying 'One never knows.' Didn't guess how near we were to being right, either."
"All the same, there are some things you can be sure of," says Farfadet, who as soon as Gauchin was mentioned had remained dreaming and distant, as though a lovely face was smiling on him. "But as for this," he added, "I'd never have believed it either! Shan't I find him stuck up, the old ruin, when I go back there after the war!"
* * * * * *
"They want a willing man to help the sappers with a job," says the big adjutant.
"Not likely!" growl the men, without moving.
"It'll be of use in relieving the boys," the adjutant goes on.
With that the grumbling ceases, and several heads are raised. "Here!" says Lamuse.
"Get into your harness, big 'un, and come with me." Lamuse buckles on his knapsack, rolls up his blanket, and fetters his pouches. Since his seizure of unlucky affection was allayed, he has become more melancholy than before, and although a sort of fatality makes him continually stouter, he has become engrossed and isolated, and rarely speaks.
In the evening something comes along the trench, rising and falling according to the lumps and holes in the ground; a shape that seems in the shadows to be swimming, that outspreads its arms sometimes, as though appealing for help. It is Lamuse.
He is among us again, covered with mold and mud. He trembles and streams with sweat, as one who is afraid. His lips stir, and he gasps, before they can shape a word.
"Well, what is there?" we ask him vainly.
He collapses in a corner among us and prostrates himself. We offer him wine, and he refuses it with a sign. Then he turns towards me and beckons me with a movement of his head.
When I am by him he whispers to me, very low, and as if in church, "I have seen Eudoxie again." He gasps for breath, his chest wheezes, and with his eyeballs fast fixed upon a nightmare, he says, "She was putrid."
"It was the place we'd lost," Lamuse went on, "and that the Colonials took again with the bayonet ten days ago.
"First we made a hole for the sap, and I was in at it. since I was scooping more than the others I found myself in front. The others were widening and making solid behind. But behold I find a jumble of beams. I'd lit on an old trench, caved in, 'vidently; half caved in--there was some space and room. In the middle of those stumps of wood all mixed together that I was lifting away one by one from in front of me, there was something like a big sandbag in height. upright, and something on the top of it hanging down.
"And behold a plank gives way, and the queer sack falls on me, with its weight on top. I was pegged down, and the smell of a corpse filled my throat--on the top of the bundle there was a head, and it was the hair that I'd seen hanging down.
"You understand, one couldn't see very well; but I recognized the hair 'cause there isn't any other like it in the world, and then the rest of the face, all stove in and moldy, the neck pulped, and all the lot dead for a month perhaps. It was Eudoxie, I tell you.
"Yes, it was the woman I could never go near before, you know--that I only saw a long way off and couldn't ever touch, same as diamonds. She used to run about everywhere, you know. She used even to wander in the lines. One day she must have stopped a bullet, and stayed there, dead and lost, until the chance of this sap.
"You clinch the position? I was forced to hold her up with one arm as well as I could, and work with the other. She was trying to fall on me with all her weight. Old man, she wanted to kiss me, and I didn't want-- it was terrible. She seemed to be saying to me, 'You wanted to kiss me, well then, come, come now!' She had on her--she had there, fastened on, the remains of a bunch of flowers, and that was rotten, too, and the posy stank in my nose like the corpse of some little beast. "I had to take her in my arms, in both of them, and turn gently round so that I could put her down on the other side. The place was so narrow and pinched that as we turned, for a moment, I hugged her to my breast and couldn't help it. with all my strength, old chap, as I should have hugged her once on a time if she'd have let me.
"I've been half an hour cleaning myself from the touch of her and the smell that she breathed on me in spite of me and in spite of herself. Ah, lucky for me that I'm as done up as a wretched cart-horse!"
He turns over on his belly, clenches his fists, and slumbers, with his face buried in the ground and his dubious dream of passion and corruption.